Upgrading his or her old 386 computer and the superannuated software that came with it, a typical PC user runs into frustrations that the support arms of vendors are supposed to help resolve. Recently, Inc. used that premise to assess how responsive the typical vendor's tech-support services really are. When we staged a similar dialing-for-help marathon in August 1991 (see "Please Hold for Customer Service," In the Office, [Article link]), customer service was cheap -- but wanting. The vendors Inc. reported on proffered toll-free support lines, but to talk to a real person, our callers sometimes were on hold for half an hour.

Customer service has undergone an overhaul. A bewildering selection of individual and corporate support is now offered, some of it free, some of it for a fee. Many software publishers have jettisoned warranty-period limits that begin ticking at the first call, and have added premium services designed to defray support costs -- theirs. In a number of instances, standard free service has been enhanced as well. Free service is often available around the clock. And when an engineer does come on the line, he or she has been well trained. Several vendors have abandoned the annoying no-serial-number-no-help stricture in favor of service to all. And some vendors have catalogued most-often-asked questions, dispatching solutions by touch-tone phone via fax or modem -- on their dime.

The most visible change: a dizzying array of telephone numbers. Here are a few samplings from Inc.'s forays:

* * *

Borland International
Standard support:
408-431-1000, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A real person answers almost immediately and assigns Borland's new personal identification number (PIN), which every caller now must have, good for unlimited use across product lines. Seconds later, an engineer asks, "How can I help you?" (Less than two minutes total time until contact.)

Fees: Unlimited toll-free access to support line is $129 a year (9 a.m. to 8 p.m. eastern standard time [EST]). Unlimited access, direct to an engineer (9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST), is $249 a year per product. The corporate rate is $5,000 a year for access to four preassigned engineers.

Free support: TechFax, 800-822-4269. For more information, 800-523-7070.

* * *

Standard support:
Phone numbers are product specific. Service available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST. Ownership documentation not required. Advised by pleasant automated female voice that the "longest hold time is nine minutes and 56 seconds." But within a minute, a technical engineer (nonautomated) picks up. (Less than two minutes total time until contact.)

Fees: After-hours contact is $195 per year for unlimited access on 800 line. A pay-as-you-call 900 number has a $25 maximum per call. For more information, 800-426-9400.

* * *

Standard support:
206-628-4515, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST (round-the-clock service for Pagemaker 5.0 only). Requires serial number. Ninety days' free service (from first call). Stretch of ethereal music before an automated voice apologizes, saying, "Please hold for the next available representative," followed by the "Please be sure to ask a rep about our Customer First program" message. Then comes the "Have your serial number ready" reminder. After five minutes, Inc. was given the option of leaving a name and number, and indeed, a rep did call back within one business day.

Fees: For a faster response by a live technician, call 900-555-2200, which costs $2 per minute up to $20 per call. Toll-free: $99 a year per product (average hold time is under two minutes) or $179 a year per product for "cut-in-line" priority queuing, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST. For round-the-clock access, the fee is $308. The corporate rate is $1,500 per company, for all products.

Free support: Technical information (recorded voice), 800-288-6832; fax-back, 206-628-5737. For more information, 206-628-4515.

* * *

Lotus Development
Standard support (90-day limit):
800-386-8600, 24 hours a day, all week, for 1-2-3 products; Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST for others. Lotus also now assigns user PINs. Following a lengthy touch-pad session, Inc. got to tech support; a live engineer answered in two minutes.

Fees: After 90 days, $129 a year. A 900 line (900-454-9009) provides the first minute free, charges $2 per minute thereafter. The corporate rate is $2,500 per site; offers unique 800 number, three engineer contacts.

Free support: Fax-back, 800-346-3508. For more information, 800-553-4270.